On Gratitude, Poetry, and Community

2 Dec

Scott Hayman, left, with Lionel Romaine

Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to be speak as part of a panel of colleagues who, one way or the other, promote community service on the Assumption College campus.

Struggling to find an intriguing thought that could frame my own presentation, my friend Scott Hayman came to mind. That figures. Leave it to a poet to figure out how to bring themes of community together.

In fact, he considers community itself to be a poem.

“A good poem is living and breathing, and has multiple perspectives and multiple contributors, and is really quite dynamic,” he told me the story during an interview back in 2014. “And there is a form, but within that form, there is everything in the world that could happen.

“And the way you approach a poem involves a covenant in that you’re not going to just read it, that it’s not a one-way street, but a two-way street. That’s definitely what community is all about.”

Meanwhile, the phrase most relevant to my recent presentation concerned how, when he worked with a clearinghouse program charged with collecting furniture for the less fortunate, he became a little too stressed with the surface goal. Finally his supervisor had a word with him.

“He told me, ‘You know, Scott, it’s not just about the sofas,’ ” he said with a soft laugh. His supervisor went on to explain that their altruistic enterprise was also about all the relationships being built through the effort – including friendships that would be there for him decades later.

“This act of gathering stuff from some people and giving it to other people is breaking down barriers in a whole variety of ways.”

ACE staffer Tereza takes her turn on the runway. (Photo by Rose Wine Photography.)

During my presentation a few weeks ago, I used “sofa” metaphor to describe how any act of service hopefully has not just the stated overt goal – which remains important – but a deeper level of community. This includes the chance to learn more about diverse kinds of people by working alongside them toward an altruistic goal.

Now, the day before Thanksgiving, it occurs to me that one thing to be thankful for as been how that community has saved me this year, time and time again.

It’s been a particularly hard and challenging fall – in the last three months, I have lost first my father, then a dear colleague, then a friend who had helped me to develop a consistent spiritual practice. But amid the hard slog of grief, I’ve found myself turning to the joy, warmth, and purpose of various service communities. On campus, there have been the inspiring examples of altruistic endeavors by colleagues, both in the form of innovative teaching and extracurricular mission opportunities.

Off campus,  there has been the work of my students at African Community Education. I’ve been blessed by ACE for five years now, ever since I showed up to volunteer as a tutor. A year later, I entered the mentoring program; I was lucky enough to be paired with Therence Nthinduka. At the time we met, Therence had only been speaking English for a year. But through his hard work and sheer intellectual curiosity, Therence was a quick learned; by the time he graduated in May, he was vice-president of the Student Council, a member of the Honors Society, and recipient of eight college acceptances. When Therence moved on to Worcester State University, his little brother Freddy took his place as my mentoring partner.

But, as with Scott’s sofas, the tutoring is only the start of the benefits of working with the ACE community. There is the inspiration, energy, warmth and joy of being with the kids themselves – and the same can be said of the staff and volunteers who keep the program going. This semester my own CSL students have experienced the benefits. One class is both tutoring and blogging for ACE; another, consisting of two CSL Minors, have joined me in team-interviewing ACE’s co-founder, Kaska Yawo.

Assumption students at the Gala: From left, Julie Craven, Maria Barrett, Morgan Maddock, Sydney Tappan, Grace Corbett, and Skyler Hesch. (Photo by David Niles.)

Many of my students went above and beyond by helping work the ACE fundraising Gala at Mechanics Hall – a joyous celebration of all things ACE, including, most importantly, the ACE students. Those kids gave speeches, they danced, they drummed – and they even strutted their stuff in a runway Fashion Show, to much applause. It was one of those nights that allowed my heart and mind to expand beyond my own troubles – into a larger community that’s given me not only as much as I’ve given, but more.

As Scott said, community, like a poem, is not just a one-way street. To enter the world of serving is to enter a covenant ourselves – to give ourselves over to a communal poem in which we actually participate, each of us changed, and for the better, by the other.

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to be part of the poem called Assumption College – and, of course,  the one called African Community Education.

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